Ingredient in popular herbicide raising safety concerns following landmark case

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INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) — It's one of the most popular herbicides in the world — used by farmers, landscapers and homeowners for more than 40 years.

Now there are new questions about the safety of a key ingredient in Roundup.

13 Investigates has the multi-million dollar verdict now under appeal and who experts say could be at risk.

Weed patrol is in full throttle outside schools in Fishers.

The city schedules the spraying for schools during fall break. It's a safe time to spray without the risk of exposure to students and staff.

Industrial Users Rely On Herbicide Warning Labels to Weigh Risks

In August the Fisher's maintenance crews sprayed vinegar and Epsom salt to kill the weeds, according to a spokeswoman at Hamilton Southeastern Schools. Now the city has hired licensed professionals to use more serious chemicals. Fishers does not contract for the use of Roundup products.

It's herbicide is called TruPower. It's warning label reads:

"The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) lists exposure to chlorophenoxy herbicides as a class 2B carcinogen, the category for limited evidence for carcinogenicity in humans." However, more current studies did not show carcinogenic potential.

It's an important distinction, one at the heart of the largest verdicts ever in a herbicide liability case against Monsanto and Roundup.

Landmark Roundup Case Results in $289 Million Verdict and Damages

Dwayne Johnson, a California school groundskeeper, is dying of non-Hodgkin Lymphoma. He has less than months to live.

Johnson hugged his attorney after the verdict awarding him $289 million

Johnson was awarded a $289-million verdict against Monsanto, the manufacturer of Roundup.

"This case was historic," said Johnson's lead attorney Brent Wisner following the verdict in August. "The jury here in San Francisco has told Monsanto enough! You did something wrong. Now you have to pay."

"That's global, so that's bigger than me, way bigger than me," added Johnson reacting to the landmark verdict.

The jury said $250 million of the award was to punish Monsanto for failing to alert users to the effects of Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup products.

International Agency for Research Glyphosate on Cancer Reclassified in 2015

In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer reclassified Glyphosate as a "probable human carcinogen." In court records, Johnson said he would not have used Roundup if he knew the safety risks.

"You know you're going to die, you might as well not die in vain. You might as well say to yourself, 'Well let's put this out here. What's happened to me,'" said Johnson responding to why he decided to file a lawsuit.

Now thousands of others across the country say they too have gotten sick.

"Roundup has been around a long, long time. These lawsuits are starting all over the country right now," said Greg Cade, an Alabama environmental attorney. Cade has gone up against Monsanto in other cases and agreed to sit down with 13 Investigates to talk about the impact of the verdict.

Lawsuits Against Monsanto Dramatically Increase Following Verdict

According to Cade, 9000 lawsuits have been filed against Monsanto, which is now owned by Bayer.

Like Johnson, individuals who have used Roundup claim Glyphosate caused Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, B-Cell Leukemia and Hairy Cell Leukemia.

But Monsanto argues Roundup has been used safely for 40 years. A company spokesman told reporters after the Johnson case, "The verdict does not change the science."

MORE: Jurors: Don't throw out $289M weed killer cancer verdict

"The Dose Makes the Poison"

Cade says it often takes years of scientific study to determine the safety of chemicals. He refers to it as the latency period.

Environmental attorney Greg Cade says Monsanto is facing at least 9000 lawsuits about the Roundup products.

"I have a rule of thumb when I look at some environmental case or matter. I like to say, 'Has it been 20 years yet," Cade asked.

He said what's just as important is the level of exposure. Cautious, limited-use comes with less risk. Cade said "the dose makes the poison."

"It's a pretty good dosage over a long period of time," explained Cade. While he believes that's the more common equation, he said it's not the only possibility.

"Heavy, heavy dosage might lead to a quicker response," he said.

Near Daily Exposure and Direct Body Contact Sited in Johnson Case

Dwayne Johnson says his exposure began in 2012 with daily drifting of the herbicide RangerPro Roundup, as well as a few accidental spills.

Despite wearing protective gear, he suffered a body rash and was diagnosed with lymphoma two years later.

Johnson called Monsanto inquiring about a link between his cancer and the Roundup product he was using.

Dwayne Johnson’s body is covered with sores. He first noticed a persistent rash after repeated exposure to the Roundup herbicide.

The following year, in 2015, Glyphosate was reclassified as a "probable human carcinogen."

Johnson then made a complaint to a poison control center about RangerPro Roundup. Monsanto was notified but took no action.

Workers Warned to Take Protective Actions When Using Herbicides

Now the verdict is causing nationwide concern.

"There's always a worry. You're talking about a potential carcinogen," said Cade. "You should at least put some type of protection in place."

Most product labels warn workers to "wear appropriate protective gear," to remove clothing and "rinse skin immediately" if there is skin contact and to call a poison control center or doctor.

13 Investigates has learned that here in Indiana, utility companies like Indianapolis Power and Light no longer use Roundup Products. That's a change since 2016.

David Scott from the Office of the State Chemist said it's agency contacted the EPA after the verdict to see if the product risk assessment had changed for Roundup. According to Scott, that assessment has not changed, therefore the agency has not issued any new warnings.

In its appeal, Bayer which now owns Monsanto says the damage amounts aren't justified and disputes that the evidence proved intent to harm.

If you believe herbicide exposure made you sick, legal action is a possible option.

Most of the cases are being transferred to California as part of a multi-district litigation process.

Herbicides Used at Area Schools:

  • Carmel Clay - (Information not provided)
  • Center Grove - No Roundup products. Stopped using in approximately 2016
  • Decatur Township - (Information not provided)
  • Eastern Hancock - (Information not provided. Referred to Office of State Chemist)
  • Franklin Township - No Roundup products
  • Hamilton Southeastern - No Roundup products. Uses TruPower Herbicide by NuFarm Americas Inc.
  • IPS - Uses Roundup Products

IPS Roundup Use Statement

“Indianapolis Public Schools uses Roundup herbicides on a limited basis and employs a certified herbicide applicator who is trained in the safe use of all products. Our current policies and procedures exceed the minimum standards for when and how the product is used. IPS groundskeepers confine usage to annual break periods when students are not onsite, and on Friday evenings during the school year allowing for at least 48 hours before students return."

  • Lawrence Township - No Roundup products. Uses TruPower Herbicide by NuFarm Americas Inc.
  • Perry Township - No Roundup products. Uses Knockout by Globe Chemical
  • Pike Township - No Monsanto products

Pike Statement:

"We follow specific guidelines when applying any chemical including proper notification to staff prior to each application. We also have a licensed professional on our staff who attends the annual conference at Purdue University on pesticide use and guides our staff in proper use and application."

  • Warren Township - (Information not provided)
  • Wayne Township - No Roundup Products
  • Washington Township - (Information not provided)

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